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My partner and I have been through four cycles of IVF. One ended in an early miscarriage and the other three failed. We’re emotionally and physically exhausted, and financially spent. How do we know when it’s time to stop treatment? Will we regret it? What other parenting options do we have?

Written by our mental health expert, Dr. Emily Koert, Registered Clinical Counsellor. 

Deciding when to stop treatment or move on with different options can be very difficult. It doesn’t help that you’re emotionally and physically exhausted – making decisions under these circumstances isn’t ideal. But something is telling you and your partner that you can’t keep moving forward as you are currently, and that’s an important message to heed.

It’s perfectly OK, and actually very wise, to take a “time out” from treatment – to step back and ask yourselves what matters most to you. Do you still have the same goals as when you started treatment, or have your goals shifted? Sometimes couples find themselves caught on a medical treadmill, going through the motions of treatment cycle after cycle without realizing that they can take a time out. They get caught up in the treatment process and often don’t make the decision to stop treatment – temporarily or permanently – and consider their options. Perhaps that happened for you and your partner and you’re now at the point when it is time to get off the treadmill and consider your options. This doesn’t mean that you have “given up” or “given in.” In fact, it takes a certain amount of courage to stop and consider whether you can continue to withstand the emotional, physical, relational, and financial costs of treatment, and to face the reality that you may not be able to realize your dreams of having a child that is the genetic product of the two of you.

In terms of regrets, picture yourself 5 years in the future and ask yourself, what do I need to do now to make sure I don’t have any regrets? Perhaps you need to go through another treatment cycle, because if you don’t, you’ll always wonder if that last cycle would have worked. Or perhaps you need to stop treatment because you’re exhausted and tired of putting your life and relationships on hold while you try to become pregnant. You may need to replenish your personal, relational, and financial resources before deciding what you want to do next.

If you know that you aren’t ready to give up on the dream of becoming parents, there are other family building options you may want to consider. Often couples need to process the loss of the child they had hoped to create together, before pursuing these possibilities. A counsellor can help you work through these emotions and help you consider the options.

You may consider using third party reproduction. Depending on your infertility diagnosis, you may be able to have a child using donor sperm, donor egg, donor embryo, or surrogacy. For example, if you were diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve, you may be able to conceive using a donated egg. The egg would be fertilized with your partner’s sperm, and one or two of the embryos would be transferred into your uterus. Or, if there was an implantation problem, a gestational carrier (or surrogate) may be able to carry one of your remaining embryos. Or, if the issue is male factor infertility, you could be inseminated with sperm from a donor to create a child. All of these third party options provide ways to create your family, but the implications are complex, so I strongly recommend you and your partner meet with a counsellor prior to embarking on any of these options. Read more about third party options here.

You may also consider adoption or foster parenting. There are two adoption options: domestic (within your country) and international. If this might be of interest to you and your partner, start by contacting your local adoption agency to research what is involved in the process. Countries have different regulations in terms of their requirements for adoptive parents. Agencies often hold information sessions that are a great way to learn some basic knowledge about this option, and ask questions of those who have gone through the adoption process. In terms of foster parenting, start by contacting your local social services or child protection agency for more information about this option. Learn more about adoption and foster parenting here.

It may also be that, after having pursued parenthood, you and your partner decide that you’ve done everything you can, and that perhaps being parents just isn’t in the cards for you. If that is the case, you will be able to move forward in your lives knowing that you did everything you could to try to have a child that was the product of the two of you. You can then set new goals for your future – goals that may or may not include nurturing other children (nieces, nephews, the children of close friends), or pets.

Give yourself time to fully consider each of these options. Whatever option you choose, I invite you to embrace it as your best option given your current circumstances, not a consolation prize. This shift in your thinking can help you move beyond the loss and disappointment and to refocus on new goals and possibilities.

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